Ever since the World Health Organization declared Europe the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic on March 13, China has seized the opportunity to provide relief to some of the worst-hit European countries as part of a concerted PR offensive aiming at polishing up the Communist Party’s image internationally and — above all — domestically. Although China’s aid offers have generally been welcomed by those leaders struggling to contain the outbreak, it is still far too early to conclude that Beijing is actually winning over any European hearts and minds. As Chinese diplomacy in Europe is becoming more brazen — and in some cases even aggressive — the opposite may well turn out to be true.
Already dubbed by some “mask diplomacy,” the fast Chinese response to the coronavirus outbreak in Europe is an undeniable fact. Since mid-March, planeloads of Chinese medical teams, masks, and ventilators have arrived at European airports. For example, on March 13, only two days after the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Italy reached 10,000, a team of Chinese medical staff from the Chinese Red Cross landed in Rome. Also on board the plane were 30 tons worth of coveted face masks and respirators in boxes draped with the Chinese flag.
Meanwhile, Spain, which is now replacing Italy as the epicenter of the virus in Europe, has agreed on a deal to purchase over half a million masks, 5.5 million test kits, and 950 respirators from Chinese vendors who have significantly upped their production. Other European countries that have received substantial Chinese help include Greece, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Austria, and Serbia. Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma has also pledged to donate 2 million masks to Spain, France, Italy, and Belgium. Meanwhile, Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant currently bidding for major 5G contracts across Europe, has donated over 2 million face masks to Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, and Poland.
Besides in-kind medical assistance, China has also stepped up its diplomatic outreach in Europe. On March 13, Chinese officials hosted a video conference with their counterparts from the so-called 17+1 group of countries in Central and Eastern Europe to share lessons about combating the virus outbreak. A similar call took place a few days later between Chinese health officials and 10 European countries including France, Portugal, and Denmark. President Xi Jinping has also personally called leaders in Italy, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, and Serbia to discuss cooperation over the virus as part of a “health silk road.”
On top of this, China has also engaged in more sinister disinformation and propaganda campaigns across Europe through some of its media outlets. Italy has been particularly targeted. For example, a tweet from the newspaper Global Times cast doubt over the origin of the virus, suggesting it came from Italy. Another tweet from a Chinese official spokesperson actively relayed a false story of Romans thanking China while playing its national anthem from their balconies. An Italian newspaper reported that China is also pulling from the Russian playbook by deploying armies of Twitter bots to spread its coronavirus propaganda. On its official website, the Chinese Embassy to France has started shamelessly attacking medical workers for “failing to assist dying patients” and “abandoning their jobs” at EHPAD nursing homes. Since August 2019, the embassy has been run by a hardliner, Lu Shaye. This follows a trend of more aggressive Chinese diplomacy in Europe over the past year against those it disagrees with.
It is not surprising that China is stepping up its PR offensive in Europe amid the coronavirus. The above-mentioned activities serve multiple purposes for Beijing. First, they enable China to deflect attention away from the fact that the virus originated in Wuhan and that Chinese officials initially denied its existence. Second, at a time when the West is struggling to contain the virus, China wants to leverage its own supposedly successful response to the outbreak and present its governance model based on social control, harsh confinement, and surveillance in a more favorable light. Third, China is utilizing these new diplomatic tools to boost its soft power profile and promote itself as a generous and responsible international actor. Although the main purpose is to rally Chinese citizens behind the Communist Party following a major domestic social and health crisis, it also presents an opportunity for China to strengthen its ties with Europe – a key priority for Beijing. The strategic relevance of Europe is further amplified by the escalating competition and trade war between Beijing and Washington under President Donald Trump and the need to improve access to European technology and market while undermining a coherent common transatlantic pushback.
So far, China’s assistance efforts appear to have garnered only isolated successes. Unsurprisingly, leaders from the most affected European countries are among the most appreciative. For example, Italy’s embattled Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio posted a video on Facebook welcoming the Chinese aid and praising China for its “solidarity spirit.” Meanwhile, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez praised China and said his country would draw from the Chinese experience of managing the virus. The most striking praise for China has come from Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić, who in a televised address announcing a state of emergency referred to China as “the only country that can help.”
However, there is less certainty that these efforts will cause any long-lasting improvement to China’s image in Europe. In fact, there are several reasons why China’s current PR drive might backfire. First, after a wobbly initial start, a more coordinated common European response to the coronavirus is now finally shaping up. As a result, China is denied the opportunity to exploit the lack of European solidarity and present itself as the only actor capable of assistance. Further, using an explicit fact-based counternarrative to help assess China’s claims, the European Commission has issued statements noting that “France and Germany have combined donated more masks to Italy than China.” Echoing the same message, French President Emmanuel Macron also added a call for “Europe-bashing” to end.
Second, efforts to push back against Chinese propaganda and disinformation in Europe are now underway. For instance, the EU’s high representative for foreign policy, Josep Borrell, has referred to the response to the coronavirus as a “global battle of narratives” and accused China of “aggressively” pushing false messages. Following his comment, Huawei decided to scale down its European mask donation program for fear of becoming embroiled in a wider geopolitical powerplay. In another example, a unit in the External Action Service normally devoted to debunking Russian disinformation has recently documented a series of Chinese coronavirus propaganda narratives in what appears to be a copy of the Russian disinformation playbook in Europe. The European Council on March 26 acknowledged the need to engage in the communication battle, saying it will “counter disinformation with transparent, timely, and fact-based communication.”
Third, reports of faulty Chinese medical equipment and supplies have triggered outrage. Countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic have already returned Chinese-made test-kits. Problems with Chinese-made masks have also been reported in several countries. These concerns will likely feed long-standing European distrust of Chinese product safety standards. Once the coronavirus crisis is over, they may also give a boost to those voices calling for less European dependency on China for security reasons. The European Commission has already issued new guidelines for the implementation of a common EU investment screening framework specifically mentioning the protection of critical European medical assets. The EU is also wary of a repeat of the post 2008 financial crisis, which led to opportunistic Chinese investments in key European infrastructures. Similarly, Macron has voiced support for adding medical supplies to the list of strategic sectors where Europe needs more “sovereignty.”
Fourth, the skepticism toward China among both European elites and the public is not likely to change, as it is driven by deeper economic and political concerns about China’s rise. Some Italian voices, for example, have reacted strongly against China’s push – sometimes asking for “war damages” instead. If anything, it underscores the more hawkish European position enshrined in an EU strategy paper on China from a year ago, which referred to the country as a “systemic rival.” In fact, the EU-China relationship, which was already facing a difficult road ahead, could actually be further negatively impacted by coronavirus fallout. The regular EU-China summit has already been cancelled and it is unclear whether the planned EU27 leaders’ meeting with Xi Jinping in Germany scheduled for September can take place. The prospect for the key deliverable for that summit, a potential bilateral EU-China investment treaty, was already looking shaky and now seems even more remote.
In short, China may well score some brownie points in Europe in the short term, especially among more populist leaders, but its PR offensive is unlikely to fundamentally transform its image. If Beijing was serious about improving its standing with European governments, it would have to do far more than symbolic deliveries of aid and photo-ops — including being more transparent about its own handling of the virus, avoiding the politicization of medical assistance, stopping the spread of disinformation and propaganda, and engaging constructively in multilateral institutions. It should also invest in partnerships with Europe on science and trade that are not just one-way.
China’s shortcomings, however, do not mean that European leaders should be complacent about the challenge posed by China’s latest diplomatic push. If the brazenness of the Chinese diplomacy push in Europe becomes a permanent fixture of its foreign policy after the pandemic, more robust European action will be vital. Meanwhile, Europe must seek to increase solidarity with affected countries such as Italy, better publicize what assistance they are actually providing to neighbors, and push back more firmly against false Chinese narratives and disinformation.
Erik Brattberg is director of the Europe Program and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington
Philippe Le Corre is a fellow-in-residence at CY Cergy Paris Université and ESSEC Business School, as well as a nonresident senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.